|THE 21ST CENTURY GRID|
|When National Geographic calls, I have, for 25 years, generally answered by saying yes, and happy to have done that. The yellow border magazine always focuses on interesting stuff, and their heavyweight reputation as a standard bearer in the world of journalism opens many doors. In this instance, that door was on a helicopter, as I joined the world of lineman, up on electrical towers, getting dropped off day after day on the wires, as America builds a new electric grid. |
Power--using it, saving it, and figuring out new sources of where it will come from in the future is a huge global concern, and question mark. Electricity, once regarded as an endless commodity, always there at the flip of a switch, is now viewed as finite, precious, and hard won. Increasingly, the traditional notion of the power grid as a one way delivery system is evolving into a two way, interactive partnership, where the consumer has a voice and a responsibility in the big picture of power, where it comes from, how to save it, and how much to pay for it.
Homes are being governed by smart devices that know what areas to shut on and off, keep warm or cold, and when to use power when it is cheapest. New sources of energy, driven by the sun and the wind, are coming on line.
All this requires a massive updating of a very old, traditional system. New towers and wires are pulling power from many areas, from the wind farms of Texas to the solar arrays of California. All of this gets funneled to the end user, who in the very near future most likely drives a car powered at least partially by electricity, and uses the batteries in that car to store electrical power. Those batteries in turn can power their house when the regular grid is overloaded or running at an expensive peak. That same consumer can look at their laptop computer, and see how much a kilowatt is costing at any given moment, and make a decision to power down their house incrementally, with the push of a button. They can shut down their entire domicile, electrically speaking, while on vacation, but again, from their laptop or PDA, power it back up remotely as they anticipate heading home.
All this new fangled interactivity is still derived from the time honored labor of electrical linemen. Grit, determination and risk accompany them everyday, just like the tools and the lunch box they bring to the towers. They hop on the skid of a helicopter as easily as most folks hop a city bus. They chopper into towers, and as the pilot maneuvers the bird carefully as a surgeon, the skid pops down onto the steel, and they unhook from their airborne commute, and start their hard, dangerous day's work. They laugh a lot up there, and shrug off the risk. As one said to me, "Most folks just want to throw a switch and have the lights come on. They don't bother thinking about where it comes from."
On my last "pick" from the towers, I jumped onto the skid, and hooked to the side of the chopper. The pilot rapped me on my hard hat and shouted a question. "Do you want a dipsey doodle?" I grinned and nodded. He took me up and over into a series of 360 turns, at one moment looking at the ground, at the next, looking at the sky. It was a great ride, and a great story to do.